So the greatest nested narrative in pop-culture history comes to a close,
and, frankly, it's not a moment too soon. Don't get me wrong -- as a
confirmed fan of both horrormeister Wes Craven and the "Scream" series that
revolutionized the genre, I enjoyed every moment of this densely plotted
final chapter, and most other fans will too. It has the characters we love,
the quips come fast and furious and the final conflict between heroic Sidney
Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her masked archenemy is treated as seriously as
the story of Cain and Abel.
But viewers who just wander in off the street to find out what all the fuss
is about may wonder whether they're watching a scathing horror parody, a
loving horror homage, a Hollywood satire with a few slashings thrown in or a
high-minded critique on the evils of making movies. For the most part,
"Scream 3" is too wrapped up in its own admittedly clever gamesmanship, and
in making sure its convoluted story works out, to deliver the goods in terms
of old-fashioned Wes Craven edge-of-your-seat terror.
Much of "Scream 3" is set on the paranoid, closed set of a horror film
called "Stab 3," whose cast is being carved up one at a time by an unknown
assailant. (Mind you, "Scream 3" is surrounded by its own paranoia. Miramax
was so concerned about protecting the movie's plot secrets that no
journalists were allowed to see the finished film until two days before it
opened.) The actors are apparently getting killed in precisely the order
that the characters they're playing were -- that is, the "real people" we got
to know back in the small town of Woodsboro in the original "Scream." Or
maybe they're just being killed in the same order as their characters in
the script of "Stab 3." As one of the actors-playing-actors remarks, "I can
see why Tori Spelling and David Schwimmer didn't want to come back," which I
guess is a "Stab" in-joke rather than a "Scream" in-joke. (Are you paying
attention? There will be a quiz.) Whatever's going on, the original
Ghostface Killer in the Edvard Munch mask is back -- or at least somebody who
looks, acts and even talks just like him.
As the series has progressed, its focus has gradually wandered away from
haunted inginue Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) toward the feuding
couple of prima-donna newswoman Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox Arquette) and
Dewey Riley (David Arquette), the perennially befuddled former sheriff's
deputy. Cox and Arquette got hitched in real life between "Scream 2" and "Scream 3," and their screen personas seem made for each other as well.
Maybe they have a future as a gender-reversed Desi and Lucy, with David as
the self-confident ditz and Courteney -- who looks thinner and scarier in
each succeeding film -- as the exasperated genius.
Here, Cox's Gale is of course up to her old unscrupulous tricks in trying to
break the story of the "Stab 3" murders, while Dewey, now a consultant to
the film's producers, can't resist telling her everything he knows. In one
of the movie's most amusing touches, Gale can't escape someone even more
self-important than she -- actress Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey), who plays
Gale in "Stab 3" and keeps insisting that her Gale is superior to the real
Jennifer, whom Posey imbues with just the right combination of artiness and
trashiness, isn't the only character with a name that movie fans may find
faintly familiar. There's also Angelina Tyler (Emily Mortimer), who
apparently worked the casting couch to get the part of Sidney in "Stab 3,"
and Tom Prinze (Matt Keeslar), who plays a buffed-up version of Dewey.
Sometimes it seems as if Craven and wunderkind screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who
took over from the series' burned-out creator, Kevin Williamson) are more
intent on mocking the current Hollywood scene -- which Craven and Williamson
surely helped create -- than on keeping the characters moving.
We get a celebrity guard with 'tude (Patrick Warburton) who tells Dewey that his
risumi includes Julia Roberts, Salman Rushdie and Posh Spice.
We get Jenny McCarthy as an aging starlet playing "the chick who gets killed
second." We get Carrie Fisher as an embittered onetime starlet who's now the
studio archivist. (For hardcore film geeks, we even get "Dogma" director
Kevin Smith doing a walk-through as his Silent Bob character and legendary
B-movie director Roger Corman as a studio executive.)
Eventually, though, we do get Sidney back and we do get a movie. For all the
screwball fun to be had with the Cox-Arquette couple, Campbell remains
the spiritual and, even more important, visual center of the "Scream"
universe. I can understand why Campbell wants to stop playing characters who
are pursued by knife-wielding maniacs and plagued by bloody nightmares, but
she's never going to get away from playing people with trouble. For someone
so young, she seems to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders and
hold a reservoir of grief behind her eyes; I'll bet when she goes to Hollywood
parties people tell her she has an old soul.
Craven's best moments as a director in this series, the moments when his
typical balance of sadism and sentimentality is at its most precise, always
come when he's paying attention to Campbell. She both sobers up his films
and humanizes them. For me, the only genuinely creepy moments in "Scream 3"
come early on, when cinematographer Peter Deming's camera finds Sidney alone at her hideaway
near Monterey, where all her double-locked doors and security codes can't
keep out dreams of the killer and visions of her murdered mother. "Scream
3," by the way, is a fine example of what I call the Hamlet principle -- the
longer any movie or play goes on, the closer it comes to becoming "Hamlet."
Ever since the beginning of the first "Scream," Sidney has needed to avenge
her mother's death, but now Mom has started to show up, rather unpleasantly,
to suggest that she still has some secrets Sidney doesn't know.
Of course Sidney returns to L.A. to help Gale and Dewey track the killer --
dragging such a black cloud over her bedraggled head that you almost feel as though Campbell's asking herself, "Should I really have
taken this part again?" If Sidney never goes home to Woodsboro she does get to
play hide-and-seek with Old Ghostface in a movie-set version of her
childhood home, where doors open onto empty space and the lawn is Astroturf
covered with catering tables. There are several new characters to spice the
stew, including a hunky young cop (Patrick Dempsey) who seems obsessed with
her, an ambitious director eager to break out of music videos (Scott Foley)
and a lecherous, legendary producer (Lance Henriksen). There's even a dead
character, video-store Randy from "Scream 2," who left behind a video
explaining the rules that apply in the last installment of a trilogy: The
killer is superhuman; anyone in the cast can die; and "the past will come
back to bite you in the ass." (Folks, save your cards and letters -- those
are not spoilers.)
With the "Scream" series now concluded and Craven and the cast apparently
eager to move on to other projects (please, Wes -- "Music of the Heart" was
just too scary!), someone else will have to seize the responsibility
of proving that critical thinking and getting the pants scared off you are
not incompatible. "Scream 3" won't be remembered as this trilogy's finest
hour or even as Craven's most eccentric descent into postmodern narrative
(that would be "Wes Craven's New Nightmare"). But it holds up the honor of
the franchise nicely, perhaps allowing a pop-culture moment to end in
entirely unprecedented fashion -- by retiring itself with dignity. Let me be
the first to offer Craven a deal: If he ever gets so broke he starts
seriously considering "Scream 4," I'll put on that damn mask and come after